The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Seven
Iella

Mt. Halpurnia lay in Bakhunia Province's northern reaches, its cinder cone summit nearly always swathed in the white mists which poured down from the higher mountains marking the provincial border between Bakhunia and Secheniz. From the ground, Halpurnia looked like only a moderately difficult climb, its granite and basalt slopes rising without too many precipitous sections to its domed top. History had no records of a conqueror, however, although the list of those foolhardy souls who had tried filled a screen in the Bakhunian archives. Most Mantrusians chose more prudently to accept the legends about the mountain, believing that it was haunted by the spirits of their ancient rulers.

Kuzhak waited near his personal airspeeder well clear of the forest which covered the foothills of the mountain, listening as the major of the Hocqyellen stormtrooper unit shouted instructions to his men. Nobody who had been assigned to this mission was Mantrusian, for Kuzhak knew that no amount of threatening would have induced them to fly anywhere near Mt Halpurnia. Even he had found himself surreptitiously crossing his heart as they had landed. Nerensai's instructions had been detailed, and sounded practical. The xechei who inhabited the mountain, would attack anything which ventured on its slopes, therefore they could be tempted to the outskirts of the forest with decoys carrying locator beacons and tractor-beamed up into the hold of a recovery vehicle, where marksmen would shoot them full of Somnavol. The sleeping animals would then be placed in holding cages and taken to their respective destinations. We only need two, she had said breezily, so it shouldn't prove a difficult task.

Kuzhak clicked off his comlink to avoid hearing the background screams of one of the decoys who had just been pulled aboard the recovery craft struggling helplessly in the arms of one of the monstrous beasts. His association with Nerensai was revealing more secrets about Mantrusia than he had expected existed. The suspicion that this task was intended as a test of his own dedication, as well as of the suitability of the two women concerned, had not escaped him. Still, he thought, such an adventurous plan will naturally involve at least some difficulties. For all her alleged concern, Nerensai was no doubt as capable of playing fast and loose with people's lives as he was. He shrugged philosophically: C ske zdam, ski matz. As is the man, so is his woman. Or was it the other way around?

* * *

"So is this real R and R, Wedge, or will we still be formally on call?" Tycho narrowed his eyes as he carefully balanced the last data card on top of the tower he had spent the last five minutes painstakingly constructing. He was sitting with Wedge and some of the other Rogue Squadron pilots in the spacious pilots' lounge of the Mon Remonda which along with the frigate Reliant, formed the nucleus of the small fleet in hyperspace on its way to Iicini'ia.

"Aa aa!" threatened Wes holding his finger under his nose."Tchoo!" said Plourr, one of the new pilots, breezing in from the corridor.

Tycho watched helplessly as his tower collapsed in ruins, then looked up at her accusingly. "You enjoyed that, didn't you?"

Plourr looked down her long nose at him. "It never ceases to amaze me, Celchu, how many small things amuse your small mind."

Wes chuckled, then he pounced on one of the cards. "Oi! So that's where my Sultry Selenie disappeared to," he threw Tycho an accusing look.

"Degenerate!" muttered Plourr.

Wes turned to her, his blue eyes wide. "I get it for the articles!" he explained innocently.

Wedge rolled his eyes and groaned. "In reply to your question, Tycho -- sort of. And after being enclosed with certain people for twelve days, I'm going to need it." As well as the bickering, Wedge was finding the excessive humidity of the atmosphere aboard the Mon Calamari ship a little fatiguing, although it was certainly better than being stuck in the cold cockpit of a small snubfighter. Fortunately, because the Remonda often carried fighter squadrons, the atmosphere in the lounge had been adjusted to human-normal, so Wedge and the others spent as much time there as possible. Fortunate -- yet not so fortunate, thought Wedge.

"So we will be getting some time off?" insisted Plourr.

"I believe so," Wedge replied diplomatically.

The reason he had selected Plourr to fill one of the empty spaces in the squadron, after her piloting skill of course, was her dogged determination. Sometimes, however, that singlemindedness could be regarded as somewhat grating, as could her scathing humour. Fortunately, as Commander, he escaped being the butt of her sarcasm, unlike Tycho, Wes and Hobbie. The other new recruits suffered less, which was probably due to their shared cameraderie as rookies. Even with the new members, Rogue Squadron was at that moment still three pilots short of its full complement, thanks to the depredations of Endor and Bakura. General Salm had lent Wedge three of his brighter recruits from Warden Squadron as a temporary measure to allow the Rogues to fulfil their innumerable escort assignments: Nasha Salm, a distant relation of General Salm himself, Blag Roofan, who had turned out to be an old childhood mate of Wes, and Sarrash Gion, a young Corellian. The ninth place in the group was filled by Dllr Nep, a good-natured Sullustan, whom Wedge had recruited at the same time as Plourr.

"Apparently Mesotonia, where the I-M base is, used to be a bit of a holiday spot in the days when Iicini'ia was part of the Empire," Wedge informed the bald-headed woman from Eiattu. "Officially we're here to confirm our accord with the Iicini'ians, do a bit of routine mechanical maintenance and give you new pilots a chance to settle in."

"And unofficially?" she asked.

"As a deterrent."

"Hell of a long way to go just to be a warning finger," mused Wes.

"Well, I don't think anyone's quite sure what's up," admitted Wedge. "They're operating on hunches at the moment ... according to General Madine. But the common hunch seems to be that there's a link with the Empire in it somewhere, hence our presence. Madine also suspects that if this involves a move against Iicini'ia, then it may also foreshadow attacks on the other worlds which followed Iicini'ia's lead and joined us. He seems to think there's a bit of Empire building going on."

"Well if we do get some spare time, Iicini'ia's not a bad place to be," said Wes. "I was checking it over on the data files."

"Why? You counting on meeting some sultry Selenies?" said Tycho provocatively, beginning the second tier of another tower.

"Well if I do, at least I'll be able to communicate with them," said Wes airily. "I've been running through an introductory language programme. Still, I suppose you could always invite them up to look at your data cards," he grinned.

"How much longer do we have to put up with these goons?" Plourr asked Wedge despairingly.

"Seven days," he said glumly. "Seven days, and counting!"

* * *

Han and Leia sat on one of the bench seats set around the perimeter of the Reliant's common-room. Space was always at a premium in starships, especially in ships designed for war where the main priorities were utilitarian. The common-room was games-room, music-room and entertainment centre as well. While Wedge's squadron was berthed comfortably aboard the Mon Remonda along with Admiral Ackbar's prototype B Wing, Han's Millennium Falcon was squashed in beside Luke's X Wing on the main hangar deck of the Reliant, along with a squadron of Y Wings.

The journey to Iicini'ia from their convocation point near Commenor took twelve days, and had to be made in three separate hyperspace jumps due to the omnipresent danger spots. In this case they had first to jump to a safe exit point about 200 parsecs beyond the furthest reaches of the Hapes Consortium. At this point they changed vectors so that their second jump remained clear of any gravitic interference from the black holes of the Maw, near Kessel. This took them to the periphery of the distant arm of the galaxy in which the Circle lay. The final jump to the outskirts of the Cini system also required a change of vector, this time to avoid the anomaly near Tsu'por. The trip made the journey to Bakura seem like an Ewok picnic.

It would have been a long time to be cramped by choice in a smaller vessel, although Han had made trips of similar duration before. In truth he wouldn't have actually minded being alone with Leia on the Falcon for twelve days, for they had had little time together since the events at Endor and Leia's discovery that Luke was her brother. Mon Mothma however had insisted that Leia, in her role as Alliance representative, should make her appearance at Iicini'ian Military Space Control in a reputable-looking vessel. And Han had to admit that they wouldn't have actually been alone on the Falcon as Chewbacca and See Threepio would have been there too. Han grimaced. At least on the Reliant he wasn't forced to endure the golden droid's incessant flow of chatter and useless trivia.

Fortunately that flow was currently being directed towards his companion Artoo Detoo, as the smaller blue and silver astro-mech droid was in the process of out-thinking and frustrating Chewbacca in a jungle strategy game. The scene brought back memories of a similar one over four years before on the way to Alderaan, in the company of Luke's first Jedi teacher, Obi-wan Kenobi. Han sighed ruefully. A lot of sand had passed through the hourglass since then.

"Have you seen much of Luke lately?" he asked Leia suddenly. She looked up, a shadow of concern passing over her face.

"As a matter of fact, no. But I get the distinct impression he wants to be alone. He's still sorting out that business on Bakura -- you know, with Gaeriel."

"I wondered if that was the problem."

Han frowned. Luke had met a young woman on Bakura, an Imperial planet whose distress signal they had intercepted the day after the Battle of Endor. The Bakurans were under siege from an alien race called the Ssi-ruk, and the Rebels had gone to their aid. Barely recovered from the trauma and physical injuries from his encounter with Emperor Palpatine's destructive power, Luke had been thrown not only into a situation of warfare, but also one which had affected him personally. He had developed the beginnings of a relationship with a young woman, Gaeriel Captison, but time and circumstance had prevented him from realizing the extent of his feelings, and duty had necessitated his departure as soon as the Ssi-ruk were defeated. Now that Luke was on board the Reliant with free time on his hands, Han had noticed the young Jedi's gradual withdrawal from his friends. Instinct told him that this was a necessary part of the healing process for Luke, but he also empathized with Leia's need to talk with her brother about her newly-discovered origins.

"No he is not cheating, Chewbacca." See Threepio's offended tone interrupted Han's thoughts. "It is impossible for a droid to employ that kind of trickery. He is simply employing the deferred move strategy which, if you had read the rules yourself, you might have used yourself a few turns back. What's that?"

Chewbacca's grumbles sounded positively self-righteous.

"Well!" said the droid in exasperation. "In that case I understand why you have so many problems with the Falcon. Only the foolish and the Gamorrean refuse to read the manual until after the full systems breakdown!"

Han rolled his eyes. The movement wasn't lost on the droid. "Yes, I know General Solo, our arms and legs are at risk. But really! Playing with someone who expects to always win by throwing tantrums is hardly what I would call an intellectual challenge." He stood up stiffly. "Come on Artoo. Let's go and chat with that R5 unit in the maintenance section."

"Better still, why don't you go and find Luke and suggest to him we might enjoy his company up here," said Han.

"I don't think so, sir," replied the droid respectfully. "Master Luke has expressed his need for solitude and rest." He followed Artoo towards the egress which led to the turbo-lift.

"I hope he snaps out of this soon," murmured Han to Leia. "They seem to think there's some sort of funny supernatural business going on in Mantrusia, and I think they're counting on him to sort it out."

"He'll be all right, he just needs time," said Leia softly.

"Well we got plenty of that. Seven more days in fact."

"Are you counting?" she asked playfully.

He shook his head, but a teasing grin appeared. "No. Just wishing it was seven weeks," he replied.

* * *

"Pity about the one in Garnitz Province," Tsarkoni was saying.

Kuzhak gazed absent-mindedly out at the fanged upthrusts of blue ice which both enclosed and protected Patal's den. The sky above them was roiling with black clouds, which had already vanquished what little light the sinking sun had been able to muster. The storm would not affect them in their protected enclave at the end of a chasm, but the peaks would soon feel the violence of the blast. A smirk deepened the shadows on his cheeks. The scene represented rather accurately the events about to enfold.

"Not really. The other is much prettier, and younger," he murmured.

"I was meaning it more from the viability point of view," remonstrated Tsarkoni. "The other was in our own territory, which wouldn't have been a problem. We run the risk of a diplomatic incident if something goes wrong and we get caught on Iicini'ian soil. It was bad enough having to get that bloody animal down on to the planet. We were just lucky the circus was there, and were willing to let us use one of their rancor transports."

"It's all under control, Tsarkoni," said Kuzhak patronizingly. "And luck has nothing to do with it, one simply goes with the most logical option. In this case the logical option is to wait until she's some place where her disappearance can't be readily attributed to us."

"Oh, yes. And how patient are you willing to be?" Tsarkoni gave his chief a jaundiced look.

"We won't have to be too patient, my friend, don't you worry. And anyway I have a task which will keep you occupied while you're waiting. That's why I asked you come. I promised Hoziak an update on proceedings, but since Shenkle's information about that surveillance post I'm not willing to risk any transmissions. I want you to deal with him in person."

"We could just send someone up to destroy the thing," the thinner man growled.

"We could and we will. But not until the time is right," replied Kuzhak mysteriously. "I suspect Hoziak is a little nervous about the timing of this operation, which is understandable now that we know a Rebel task force is on its way. I want you to go through the sequence with him again, plus provide him with the list Shenkle's put together outlining the probable configuration of the Rebels' fleet. Even if Shenkle's information is incomplete and he's a few ships short, it's not going to be a major force to contend with, and will not require Hoziak to augment his support fleet by too much. I have an additional step, too, which I will explain to you shortly, and which I'll need his co-operation with. Emphasize that all Hoziak needs to do at present is make sure his Admiral has his fleet primed and ready to go when the call comes, for it's imperative that when we strike we must strike quickly. The Iicini'ians and the Rebels must not be allowed any time to call for help."

And when Pestage invites us to Coruscant to reward us for our intiative? Nerensai's abilities will see to him. And then to Hoziak, and anyone else who questions our actions. Palpatine's rule was based on fear, and ours will be no different.

"When do you want me to leave?" asked Tsarkoni.

"How soon will it take to brief your assistant on the dos and don'ts while you're away?"

Tsarkoni frowned thoughtfully. There were a few files that would need safeguarding but otherwise most of the damaging information had already been removed to the Secheniz site. "I can leave late tomorrow," he said finally.

"Excellent!" smiled Kuzhak.

To Chapter Six | To Chapter Eight

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